Public Domain Images

riding-hood-matted-1000x72I have a great fondness for fairy tales, and even have a modest collection of old fairy tale books.  I have vivid memories of reading these fantastic stories as a very young human, fretting for the safety of the characters as their rambling adventures brought them to far-off and impossible places.  I remember feeling wistful, even at that age, that I would never be able to travel there with them.

In the best books, the illustrations were magic, and reading alone by the light of a lone bedside lamp left one particularly vulnerable to falling under their spell.

Years later, I realized just how talented some of these illustrators actually were, and I wanted to keep them from slipping into obscurity, maybe help to bring them to a new audience.  I began by photographing some books in my collection.  As it turns out, reproducing these pictures is difficult to do well.  Directly scanning a book faithfully copies half-tone dots in a thoroughly unflattering manner, along with other unexpected and unwanted artifacts.

A carefully exposed, high resolution photograph also captures dust spots, stains, and flaws in the printing process that the naked eye filters out without batting a lash.  It’s as though the act of reproducing these images somehow raises the standard by which they will be judged.

Next came an education in correcting these objectionable flaws while preserving the charm and character of the original.  The digital tools to accomplish this are indeed powerful, but nothing exists (or likely ever will) that does the job automatically.  It requires long bouts of patiently retouching the image, each session slowly approaching the desired final result.

Next came an education in the vagaries of public domain protection.  My first project was the restoration of a book of traditional tales, illustrated by Margaret Tarrant.  My best research indicated that these images were safely in the public domain, but perhaps six months after I published them online, I got an email stating that I was violating the copyright protection of the book’s original publisher, and requesting that I remove the images.

So I simply removed the images, which I was offering for sale.  I was annoyed that all that work was for naught, and very briefly considered mounting a challenge, but  realized that my legal and financial resources would almost certainly be overwhelmed by the party on the other side of the action, no matter who they were, even if it was just some eccentric old crank.

Which brings us to today.  I feel the same way about keeping these wonderful old images alive, and look forward to making some available here on my site. There is a wealth of old illustrations, photographs, instructional and propaganda posters, and other materials languishing in obscurity, waiting to be rediscovered. I look forward to exploring this trove, but I will be ever so careful from now on when travelling through the dark, enchanted forest of the public domain.

Update: I have begun restoring some Public Domain images.  They range from historic to silly to simply beautiful.

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